Adbusters Essay

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Adbusters is a Canadian-based nonprofit organization  founded   in  1989   by  the   awardwinning  documentary filmmakers  Kalle Lasn and Bill Schmalz  in Vancouver,  British  Columbia. Its primary  focus is to be anticapitalistic, anticonsumerist,  and   pro-environment.  On   its Web  site,  the  organization describes  itself  as “a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students,  educators, and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age.” It also publishes a reader-supported, advertising-free activist magazine,  Adbusters, which  has  an international circulation  of  about   120,000. The  magazine  is primarily   focused   on   challenging   consumerism and encouraging  environmentalism. It is subtitled The  Journal  of  the  Mental  Environment and  is best known  for its “subvertisements,” which spoof popular advertisements. It is published  bimonthly in Canada, Australia,  the  United  States,  and  the United Kingdom  and offers international editions of each issue.

The  mission  of  the  foundation, as  stated   by Lasn in 1996,  is as follows:

What  we’re trying to do is pioneer a new form of social  activism  using  all  the  power  of  the  mass media  to sell ideas, rather  than  products. We are motivated by a kind  of “green think” that  comes from the environmental movement and isn’t mired in the old ideology  of the left and  right.  Instead, we take  the environmental ethic into  the mental ethic,  trying  to  clean  up  the  toxic  areas  of  our minds.  You  can  recycle and  be a good  environmental citizen, then watch four hours of television and get consumption messages pumped  at you.


The Adbusters movement began in response to television ads run by the British Columbia Council of  Forest  Industries   titled  “Forests   Forever”   in 1988, in which they used a green washing approach to allay the fears of the public  about  the adverse effects of the  logging industry. The  television  ads run  by  the  association showed  images  of  happy children, workers, and animals, with a background narrator assuring  everyone that  the logging industry  supported the environmental movement. Lasn and  Shmalz tried  to counter  the message by creating  an  anti-ad  in  which  an  old-growth tree explains  to  a  sapling  that  “a  tree  farm  is not  a forest,”  but  they were not  able to broadcast it via the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation because it was  deemed  “advocacy  advertising” and   hence controversial.

This incident  triggered  the birth  of the foundation, which believed that consumers  had an equal right of access to information flows as corporations. The  mission  of  the  organization is known   as  the   Media   Carta,   a  “movement  to enshrine the Right to Communicate in the constitutions of all free nations, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”  It notes  that  the concern  over the flow of information goes beyond the desire to protect  democratic transparency, freedom  of speech, and  the  public’s  access to  the airwaves.  The  goal  is to  counter  proconsumerist advertising  not just as a means to an end but as an end  in itself. This  shift  in focus  is referred  to  as mental  environmentalism.

International  Campaigns

In April  2009,  the  foundation sponsored Digital Detox Week, encouraging  citizens to spend a week “unplugged”—without any electronic devices such as video games or computers. The One Flag competition   encouraged  readers   to  create  a  flag  to symbolize “global  citizenship,” without using language  or commonly  known  symbols.

Adbusters has also launched other global campaigns  such as Buy Nothing Day, TV Turnoff Week, and Occupy Wall Street. Adbusters’ sister organizations include Résistance à l’Aggression Publicitaire and Casseurs de Pub in France, Adbusters  Norge  in Norway, Adbusters  Sverige in Sweden, and Culture  Jammers in Japan. Adbusters won the National Magazine  of the Year award  in Canada in 1999.


Some have criticized the foundation for having characteristics similar to the media and commercial firms that  it attacks. The glitzy design of its magazine  is seen as an excuse for making it very expensive, focusing  more  on  a style-over-substance approach and creating a facade for unsatisfactory content.

In October 2010,  Shopper’s Drug Mart, a drugstore in Israel, pulled Adbusters off its shelves because a photo  medley comparing  the Gaza Strip to a Warsaw  ghetto  was used in an article critiquing Israel’s embargo  of Gaza.  The  magazine  was criticized  for  trivializing   the  Holocaust  and  for anti-Semitism.

Some critics focus on the magazine’s culture jamming, the primary  means by which Adbusters challenges consumerism, since it does little to incite real difference. Others  see it as an easy way for upperand middle-class  consumers  to feel empowered by participating in  campaigns  such  as  Buy Nothing Day  at  no  personal  cost. These  critics  think  that there  is a need for resistance  against  the causes of capitalist  exploitation, not its symptoms.


  1. Bhattacharjee, Sandeep and Priyanka “A Study of Anti-Branding  Antecedents  With Special Reference to Redbulls, Starbucks,  Adbusters  and Walmart.” Global Journal of Research in Management, v.2/1 (2012).
  2. Bordwell, Marilyn. “Jamming Culture: Adbusters’  Hip Media Campaign Against Consumerism.” In Confronting Consumption, Thomas  Princen, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca, eds. Cambridge: MIT, 2002.
  3. Fahimian, “How the IP Guerrillas  Won: ®TMark, Adbusters, Negativland, and the ‘Bullying Back’ of Creative  Freedom  and Social Commentary.” Leland Stanford  Technology Law  Review  (2004).
  4. Flam, Helena and Debra  Emotions and Social Movements. London:  Routledge, 2007.
  5. Fleming, Andrew. “Adbusters Sparks Wall Street Protest: Vancouver-Based Activists Behind Street Actions in the US.” Vancouver Courier, v.12 (2011).
  6. Haiven, “Privatized Resistance: Adbusters  and the Culture  of Neoliberalism.” Review  of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural  Studies, v.29/1 (2007).
  7. Heath, Joseph and Andrew Potter.  The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture  Can’t Be Jammed. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
  8. Pickerel, Wendi, Helena Jorgensen, and Lance Bennett. “Culture Jams and Meme Warfare:  Kalle Lasn, Adbusters, and Media Activism.” Seattle: University of Washington Center  for Communication and Civic Engagement,
  9. Rumbo, Joseph D. “Consumer Resistance  in a World  of Advertising Clutter:  The Case of Adbusters.” Psychology  & Marketing, v.19/2 (2002).
  10. Soar, Matt. “The Politics of Culture  Jamming: Adbusters on the Web and in Print.”  M/C Reviews,  12 (2000).

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